Manoah’s Wife

“Manoah’s Sacrifice” by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1641.( Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain, PD-1923)

Tucked away in the Old Testament book of Judges there is a woman many of us may not have heard about. As the Bible does not disclose her name, we know her only as Manoah’s wife. Her story is found in Judges 13:1-24.

Manoah’s wife lived during a period of Israel’s history when the nation was subjected under the rule of their bitter enemies, the Philistines. No doubt many prayers were being offered up during this time by God-fearing Hebrews desperate for a saviour to deliver Israel from the Philistine oppressors. Samson, the child Manoah’s wife would bear and raise, and who God appointed as Israel’s leader for twenty years, would become part of their answer (Judges 13 to 16).

We catch our first glimpse of Manoah’s wife when she is visited by the Angel of the Lord who announces that even though she is barren, she will soon conceive and bear a son. She is given specific dietary instructions to observe while she is pregnant, and instructed that her child, who ‘shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines’ is to be brought up as a Nazarite (see Numbers 6:1-21).

We have no way of knowing the circumstances in which this encounter with the Angel of the Lord took place. Was the woman praying for a child? Was she worshiping, cooking, working in the fields? What we do know from scripture is that the Angel of the Lord visited her personally, communicated information of national importance to her and conveyed specific instructions, entrusting her with their fulfilment.

It is worth noting at this point that the term ‘Angel of the Lord’ is considered by many Biblical commentators to be a description of Christ in His pre-incarnate form. There are several incidences recorded in the Old Testament where this Angel speaks as God, identifies Himself as God, and accepts worship as God (Genesis 16:7-12; 21:17-18; 22:11-18; Exodus 3:2; Judges 2:1-4; 5:23; 6:11-24; 13:3-22; 2 Samuel 24:16; Zechariah 1:12; 3:1; 12:8). It seems clear therefore that the Angel Who spoke directly with Manoah’s wife was not a created angelic being, but God Himself.

As did all Hebrew women of her time, the wife of Manoah lived in a patriarchal society. Fathers, husbands, brothers and males in general ruled in home and society. Women had limited status and little say over their own lives or those of others. As would have been normal, Manoah’s wife reported the visitation of the Angel of the Lord to her husband and conveyed the message He’d given her. Evidently unaware of his true identity, she describes her visitor as ‘a man of God’, or a prophet.

Interestingly, while sharing with her husband the news of the impending birth and the divine instruction about raising their child as a Nazarite, she leaves out any mention of their son’s destiny as Israel’s awaited deliverer. We cannot help but be reminded of another woman, at a later time in Israel’s history who, ‘treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). For now, at least, the child’s future would remain a secret between the Angel of the Lord and Manoah’s wife.

On hearing his wife’s news, Manoah appears to feel a little neglected. Whether he did not entirely believe his wife’s story, or was simply taking responsibility as head of his family, we can only speculate, but he prays and asks God to send the ‘man’ again to confirm to ‘us’ how the boy should be raised.

The Angel of the Lord does come again, but chooses not to come at a time when Manoah and his wife are together. The scripture says after listening to the voice of Manoah, He revisits the woman while she is ‘sitting in the field’ and specifically notes ‘her husband was not with her.’

What happened here?

The Angel of the Lord visited an ordinary Hebrew woman, conveyed a message of national significance to her with no witness present, and gave detailed instructions that must be stringently obeyed so that God’s purposes would be fulfilled. When her husband seeks confirmation He returns to repeat His message, by-passing the man and going directly to the woman once again when her husband is not with her. We can only wonder how some present day proponents of ‘male headship’ explain why God so blatantly ignored His own so-called divine preference in this case.

It is Manoah’s wife who, leaving the Angel in the field, runs quickly to fetch her husband. Note the Angel gives no such instruction. Manoah is left to follow his wife through the fields if he wants to meet this ‘man of God’.

Let’s listen in to their conversation. (I am using the NASB version.)

Manoah: ‘Are you the man who spoke to the woman?’

Angel of the Lord: ‘I am’.

Manoah: ‘Now when your words come to pass, what shall be the boy’s mode of life and his vocation?’

Angel of the Lord. ‘Let the woman pay attention to all that I said. She should not eat anything that comes from the vine nor drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing; let her observe all that I commanded.’

Did you notice anything missing from the exchange? The Angel graciously repeats the Nazarite dietary requirements Manoah’s wife should observe while she is pregnant. He does not go into detail about the child’s upbringing, simply confirming that the woman already knows what has been commanded.

But Manoah’s question about the child’s future vocation remains unanswered. It would seem the Angel is honouring the woman’s decision to keep that piece of information hidden in her own heart until a time she herself chooses to disclose it to her husband.  Clearly He trusts this woman to do all He has told her without the need for her husband’s supervision.

Changing tack, Manoah asks the man to stay while he prepares a meal for him. The Angel refuses food but will accept a burnt offering to the Lord in its place. But Manoah is still playing detective. ‘What is your name, so when your words come to pass we can honour you?’ he asks.

In marked contrast, Manoah’s wife, in two encounters with the man, has not asked his name or where he comes from. The woman has heard his words, received them and shared them with her husband, possibly at the risk of being disbelieved. Manoah, on the other hand, seems to still be making up his mind whether this ‘man of God’, who has dared approach his wife twice while she was alone can be trusted.  Possibly he seeks the man’s name so he can hold him to account should his promise of a son prove false.

The Angel, however, is having none of it. He exposes the motives of Manoah’s heart by directing a question back at him: ‘Why do you ask my name?’ He asks, adding ‘seeing it is wonderful.’ The Hebrew word ‘piliy’ is translated as ‘wonderful’ in some Bible versions and ‘incomprehensible’ in others. Whichever is correct, it seems clear the Angel of the Lord was not yet willing to share His wonderful, incomprehensible Name with Manoah.

It is at this point that the Angel of the Lord opens both Manoah’s and his wife’s eyes to His true identity. As the goat and the grain offering are placed in the fire of the altar, the Angel immerses Himself within the flame, ascends to Heaven and disappears from view. Stunned and afraid, both of them fall down in awe-filled worship. This has been far more than a mere prophet who has visited them.

Realising that he has been dealing with God Himself, Manoah declares that they will both certainly die, as all knew it was impossible to see God and remain alive. His wife, however, is thoroughly convinced of God’s inherent good will towards them and points out to her husband three reasons why they will not die. If God had wanted to kill them, she says, he would not have:

*accepted their burnt offering worship;

*shown them the wonder they had just witnessed;

*given them the announcement of a coming child;

Manoah’s wife demonstrated insight into God’s character that her husband lacked. She attributed Him with goodness, justice and faithfulness revealing a heart of deep faith, strength and humility. Rather than Manoah protectively offering comfort and reassurance to his wife as her presumed ‘head’, it is the woman who provides wisdom and encouragement to her trembling husband.

Finally, we read: Then the woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson; and the child grew up and the Lord blessed him.’

Again, we gain much insight from reading between the lines. It was a husband’s role and privilege to name his son. But here we are clearly told Manoah’s wife named her son, calling him Samson or ‘one who shines like the sun’. Who was she thinking of when she called her son this revealing name? Was it the One who said His name was incomprehensible and wonderful, whose appearance she had described as ‘very awesome’?

There is something about this little known Old Testament woman that makes me wish we knew more about her. In preparing this article I referenced several commentaries on the story of Manoah and his wife and without exception every one of them focused primarily on Manoah, describing him as a man of great faith. In some of them his wife was briefly commended for being an encouragement to her husband.

But in my own reading of the passage it is Manoah’s wife whose faith leaps out from the page, whose humble response to the Angel of the Lord, and whose wisdom in face of her husband’s fear, are pivotal to the story.

She may be nameless, but I believe it’s time Manoah’s wife was released from obscurity to receive the recognition she deserves.

In a deeply patriarchal society, during a time of national oppression, she demonstrated faith, wisdom, humility, courage and family leadership that was extraordinary for her time and situation. In doing so she joins the ranks of countless dedicated, nameless women throughout history who heard from God, acted on His Word, and bravely trusted Him despite adverse outward circumstances.

These nameless courageous women are always among us. If you are one of them, rest assured your name is very well-known to God.

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